The 2014 season is nearly upon us, and we are heading into summer's final stretch. As the excitement builds, Ralphie Report will look some interesting aspects on both sides of the ball before the season opener. This article focuses on breakout players for the defense. Now there are two simple requirements to be a breakout player for the defense. You have to play defensively, and you can't be a true freshman. Simple enough? Off we go!
Side Note: Derek McCartney and Ahkello Witherspoon will "break out" as well this year, but since that was already the expectation, I'm excluding them from this list. This is for players that will exceed their expectations.
Buffs Preview 2014
This may be cheating, as Coach Mac has already pegged Olugbode as a breakout player, but I'm going with it. Olugbode, or Kenneth from now on, had a very strong spring leading up to this season and his increase in playing time will show that. He's the fastest linebacker on the roster (other than Ryan Severson, whom he starts over), perfect for covering the Pac-12 offenses that CU will face. He adds a sorely lacking element to our roster, pass coverage from the second level. Gillam covers and does everything else well, but for years the Will and Sam linebackers have not been able or asked to cover tight ends or slot receivers. Olugbode is one of the few LB's who can cover both. While undersized, his speed more than makes up for his deficiency. Watch for Olugbode to blitz and drop into coverage often next year, so we can really utilize his speed. In defending four wide receiver sets, having Olugbode on the field allows for a lot more flexibility. He can cover the tight end (if there is one), or shift out to the slot at times, leaving both safeties playing centerfield. Speaking of safeties...
While the strong safety position is still a question mark for the defense, free safety is all locked up by Mr. Bell. He came on strong last season, with the fumble return against USC as a real turning point. Bell has the requisite size, speed and ranginess to play centerfield. The Buffaloes have not had a true centerfielder at safety since they joined the conference, and I predict that pass defense will be improved dramatically because of this. The 5th-year senior has the experience and the ability to cover many of the mistakes the CB's or LB's may make, as well as play the ball, creating more turnovers. Bell is hard to not root for; he is a hard worker who keeps his down and out of trouble. Also one of the funnier Buffs on social media, Bell can be a big difference maker during his last season in Boulder. Baer should use him as a traditional safety, playing 15 yards deep and reading the field. The strong safety can go up in the box more frequently now than last year, and in a nickel package, having someone else in the box could be very helpful for the defense.
Gilbert was one of the many true freshmen last year who provided good play for the team. Before he was injured, Gilbert showed some exciting potential rushing the passer, with good speed and a solid bend. However, his injury kept him out of spring ball, so while healthy for the start of the summer program, he remains a bit of a mystery for this upcoming year. We don't know his potential and more, more importantly, his floor. Derek McCartney shined through spring and locked up the RDE spot, but don't be surprised to see Gilbert rotated with him or Henington, at least on passing downs, to provide a rush. CU's pass rush struggles from last year are well documented, and Gilbert could go a long way to alleviating the fears of many Buff fans. Still too slight to play defensive end on rushing downs, he would be a situational player, but in those situations he could prove invaluable. His weight worries me; if he continues to struggle putting on weight throughout his career, he could make me look like an idiot for this prediction. However, as of right now, Gilbert is another exciting piece of the puzzle that MacIntyre has to figure out, and expect him, Bell, and Olugbode to make a bigger-than expected impact next season.